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A Day of Genius in Raleigh

October 13, 2018 9:30 AM – 1:15 PM


9:30 AM - 10:35 AM
The Nature of Genius: The Life and Universe of Albert Einstein

Matthew Stanley / New York University

Einstein’s name is synonymous with genius. His wild-haired, thoughtful-eyed face has become an icon of modern science. His ideas changed the way we see the universe, the meaning of truth, and the very limits of human knowledge. This course will examine how Einstein’s youthful philosophical questioning led to a revolution in science. We will discuss his creation of special and general relativity, and particularly how these epochal theories emerged from his seemingly simple questions about how we experience the world. His preference for easily-visualizable thought experiments means we will be able to engage deeply with the science with very little mathematics. Einstein also pioneered quantum mechanics, only to reject its strange consequences and eventually devote his life to overturning it through a unified field theory.

Einstein’s elevation to worldwide fame was closely tied to political and social developments such as World War I, Zionism, and the rise of the Nazis. As he became an incarnation of genius, people sought out his views on everything from world peace to the nature of God – and his opinions often had surprising links to his scientific work. The picture of Einstein we end up with is a figure somehow both revolutionary and deeply traditional, emblematic of the modern age and also profoundly uncomfortable with it.

Matthew Stanley / New York University
Matthew Stanley teaches the history and philosophy of science at NYU. He holds degrees in astronomy, religion, physics, and the history of science and is interested in the connections between science and the wider culture. He is the author of "Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington" which examines how scientists reconcile their religious beliefs and professional lives. He has held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study, the British Academy, and the Max Planck Institute. Professor Stanley was awarded a 2014-2015 Gallatin Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

10:50 AM - 11:55 AM
The Groundbreaking Genius of Leonardo da Vinci

Denise Budd / Columbia University

When considering artistic genius in the Italian Renaissance, the individuals who most commonly come to mind are the great triad of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo and Raphael. These three often contentious rivals have been categorized as Universal Men, gifted in many arts and areas of intellectual pursuit. It is Leonardo who is most often imagined in this multifaceted way, as artist, scientist, engineer, and musician. Yet, in reality, unlike his more productive counterparts, Leonardo was a painter who infrequently completed a painting, a sculptor who rarely sculpted, and architect who never built anything. He penned drafts of treatises on the arts, and planned many more on wide-ranging subjects, although none of these were completed or published in his lifetime.

Even more elusive than his artistic identity is his personality. Described in the 16th century as possessing a divine combination of beauty, grace and talent, the several thousand pages of notes he carefully penned reveal almost nothing about himself. What they do demonstrate, however, is Leonardo’s genius of sheer invention and investigation, with ideas that he envisaged so relentlessly that they became his art. That he rarely had the will, time, or even ability to carry them out is beside the point. This course will discuss Leonardo’s career, examining several of his most canonical works, as well as considering his most ambitious plans that never came to fruition.

Denise Budd / Columbia University
Denise Budd teaches art history at Columbia University and a wide range of Renaissance art classes at Rutgers University. She has published several articles on Leonardo da Vinci based on her studies of the artist and his documentary evidence. Following this interest in archival work, her current research has extended to the history of collecting Renaissance art in Gilded Age America, with a focus on the tapestry collector and dealer Charles Mather Ffoulke.

12:10 PM - 1:15 PM
The Restless Scientific and Political Genius of Benjamin Franklin

Richard Bell / University of Maryland

Franklin's genius is a puzzle. Born the tenth and youngest son of a decidedly humble family of puritan candle-makers in Boston in 1706, Franklin's rise to the front ranks of science, engineering, and invention was as unexpected as it was meteoric. Here is a man with only two years of proper schooling who later received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and St. Andrews as well as the eighteenth-century equivalent of a Nobel Prize for Physics.

Like his hero Isaac Newton, Franklin's great genius lay in optimizing, in tinkering, in improving, and in never being satisfied with the world as he knew it. In this talk we will examine many of Franklin's ideas to make life simpler, cheaper, and easier for himself and everyone else. It turns out that those ideas encompassed not only natural science and engineering—the kite experiments and the bifocals for which he is justly remembered—but also all sorts of public works, civic improvements, political trail-blazing, and fresh, new business ideas. His experimenter's instinct, his relentless drive to build a better world one small piece at a time, even encompassed innovations in medical device design, in music, in cookery, and in ventriloquism. Hardly the tortured genius, Franklin took a schoolboy's pleasure in everything he made. Experimenting was a constant source of beauty, pleasure, and amusement for him, even when things went wrong (which they did all the time).

Richard Bell / University of Maryland
Richard Bell is a Professor of History at the University of Maryland. He has served as the Mellon Fellow in American History at Cambridge University, the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, a Mayer Fellow at the Huntington Library, as a Research Fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Abolition and Resistance at Yale University, and a Resident Fellow at the John W. Kluge at the Library of Congress. He is also a frequent lecturer and debater on the C-SPAN television network. Professor Bell is the recipient of more than a dozen teaching awards, including the 2017 University System of Maryland Board of Regents Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching.

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